Palm oil is everywhere. From your lip gloss, to your soap, to food products like chocolate or ice cream, palm oil is an inevitable part of your life, even if you had not heard of it until now. And, unsurprisingly, this ubiquitous product is backed by a similarly elusive industry.

I first learned about palm oil while studying abroad in Costa Rica and meeting smallholder farmers. I remember being fascinated by palm oil’s many uses, but also shocked by the potential negative impact on people and the environment. After studying more and understanding the global impact of this unique crop, I’ve become increasingly invested in promoting sustainably grown palm oil.

Any seemingly clear picture of the palm oil industry is still obscured by layers of secrecy and missing information.

Palm oil is a highly land-efficient and versatile vegetable oil obtained from oil palm trees, meaning that a lot can be produced in a small space, and it can be used in a wide variety of products (eg. lip gloss and ice cream). However, it is also one of the leading drivers of tropical deforestation. In Indonesia and Malaysia particularly, expansion of palm oil plantations is the primary cause of rainforest destruction, resulting in damage to Indigenous communities and threats to biodiversity. 

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Example of a palm oil plantation from Mongabay.

Protecting tropical rainforests is not only important for preserving the Earth’s biodiversity, but also for combating climate change. Rainforests and the peatlands below them are some of the biggest terrestrial carbon sinks and storages in the world. A carbon sink naturally draws in carbon, instead of it going in our atmosphere. Cutting down rainforests and burning peatlands not only releases a huge amount of carbon into the atmosphere, it also prevents those carbon sinks from pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. 

There are a lot of different drivers of deforestation, but a big reason palm oil is different is that there are many solutions already available that allow us to produce and use palm oil without causing deforestation. One clear solution is for plantation owners to use already degraded and abandoned land for planting the oil palm trees, instead of clearing more forest. Even though this sounds like a simple enough solution, it is rarely implemented. Despite the fact that so many farmers are knowingly avoiding deforestation solutions, many big companies still source palm oil from these farmers to use in their lip glosses and ice creams.     

And so our growing group of passionate Gen-Z students, activists, and forest-lovers set out to peel back all those layers of secrecy and reveal whatever truth lay beneath.

For the sake of accountability and enforcement of anti-deforestation efforts, our organization, Gen Z for the Trees, created a research project centered around palm oil, investigating supply chains one corporation at a time. 

We’ll guide you through this complicated forest-themed detective story:  Global Forest Watch, a resource used by conservation groups, journalists, and policymakers worldwide, provides access to a wealth of data and maps related to deforestation. Global Forest Watch offers datasets which identify, visualize, and can analyze patterns of environmental indicators, such as sudden deforestation or forest fires, and provide information on commodities such as palm oil. We have been mainly looking into the data sets containing locations of palm oil mills. The process of making palm oil into consumable products like ice cream is complicated, but an extremely important step is the harvesting of the oil palm trees. 

The oil palm fruit needs to be taken to mills to be turned into palm oil, and because of the nature of the trees, the mills must be close to the plantations so no oil palm gets wasted. This is useful information to us, because this means the location of the palm oil mills will also tell us the locations of the plantations, which then indicate areas of deforestation due to palm oil. This exemplifies how the Global Forest Watch’s data is a key factor in finding the culprits of deforestation. 

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However, the data set called “Palm oil mills” on Global Forest Watch (GFW) only contains mills on the Universal Mill List (UML). The UML is the attempt of GFW and other organizations to create an accurate and descriptive list of every single palm oil mill. Its description cautions users, “This data set is not a complete representation of all palm oil mills in the world.” They go on to say that the mills are reported by companies to GFW, and then double checked with the local governments, claiming that, “The resulting data provide a robust and rigorously verified collection of mills in major supply chains. Mill name, company, and group name information are based on the best available data and may have potential inaccuracies.” We believe we have found such inaccuracies in their system, and in particular, we have found some omissions from their system.         

Moreover, the “Parent Company” information available for individual mills does not reveal which corporations each mill supplies. Many of these palm oil traders are often multinational corporations, and their names are more recognizable to final consumers.

Like we said before, the process of oil palm trees to ice cream is complicated; there are a lot of big name companies using unsustainably sourced palm oil for their products, and we believe consumers have a right to know which companies are doing just that. Thus, company-specific layers would be a useful and impactful tool for researchers, government agencies, reporters, or even consumers for identifying who is supporting unsustainable practices. 

“There are a lot of big name companies using unsustainably sourced palm oil for their products, and we believe consumers have a right to know which companies are doing just that.”

Towards our Bold Goal of Net Zero Deforestation by 2030

To that end, Gen Z for the Trees began searching for publicly accessible mill data from companies, downloaded their published mill lists, and converted them into usable spreadsheets. 

We were surprised at the number of mill lists we were actually able to find. It seems that many big companies are starting to publish mill lists for the sake of traceability or accountability. Since sustainability is a huge issue for many consumers, many companies are publicly listing where they get their palm oil, so the public can easily see how the company is doing in achieving their sustainability goals.

However, it also became clear to us that some companies posted their mill lists in an effort to only seem more transparent, making their mill lists hard to find and hard to use in actual data analysis. 

We were not so easily deterred. 

Using MapBuilder, we mapped the mills involved in the supply chains of the big companies: Cargill, Wilmar, Mondelez, Unilever, and Sime Darby. Our next step is now to ask Global Forest Watch to add company-specific datasets as layers on their dashboard for commodities.

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Screenshot of Sime Darby’s Crosscheck platform.

From the published mill lists, we uncovered 310 mills lacking a UML ID number.

A Universal Mill List is supposed to be universal, meaning all mills should be accounted for and be monitored under the same standards. Having 310 mills flying under the radar can lead to huge amounts of tropical deforestation that the Earth simply can not afford.

After checking the UML and identifying potential duplicate mills, we plan to work with Global Forest Watch to address the ones which are truly missing from the UML. The UML is the most extensive unifying tool to help traceability when it comes to palm oil, and it is very important that all mills are identified and registered. We are also comparing the locations of these previously unmapped mills with recent data on tree cover loss and fires. This will allow us to determine if these unidentified mills are directly responsible for major deforestation.

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A screenshot of the Gen Z for the Trees team’s compilation of palm oil mills missing a Universal Mill List ID number.

Beyond Traceability: Are Sustainable Mills Actually Sustainable?

Another important institution involved in reducing deforestation caused by palm oil is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO’s goal is “to ensure the credibility of palm oil sustainability claims.” It is an important organization, and leads an important role in stopping deforestation due to palm oil. It is crucial in enforcing sustainable standards across the mills on the UML.

In our research, we have found that a decent portion of mills are not certified by the RSPO. A few of the companies even refrained from providing information on RSPO certification status of their supplying mills. 

There are clearly many mills that are not following the sustainable rules agreed upon by the RSPO, and the companies that omit the RSPO certification status of their mills are most likely withholding that information for a reason: it probably doesn’t paint the prettiest picture of their deforestation habits. Listing RSPO certification of a mill is vital for a company to include, especially if they are truly willing to be transparent in their sustainability efforts.

We will shed light on these unsustainable mills so that the companies, RSPO, GFW, and consumers can recognize these unsustainable practices and hold them accountable.

Gen Z for the Trees demands accountability and an end to palm oil-driven deforestation.

And so, our group of stubborn and tireless Gen Zers will facilitate the enforcement of  sustainable palm oil standards by finding and mapping more mills, which can then be monitored for proximity to fire and deforestation. Even though more and more companies are trying to be transparent as to where their palm oil comes from, it means nothing if they actually source unsustainably, and aren’t held accountable for it. Bridging the gap between major companies and the organizations trying to monitor them has inadvertently become our responsibility, and we do not take it lightly. 

We will also use this project to educate more people about palm oil, because while avoiding palm oil products can be helpful, supporting sustainable palm oil is the best action to protect rainforests in the long run.

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